Refugee Crisis in the Age of Trump: Getting Holocaust Analogies Wrong

Some of the Republican presidential candidates are fond of Holocaust analogies. Mike Huckabee, for example, has compared abortion to the Holocaust, and has said the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Those are just two items from Huckabee’s long history of Holocaust analogies, recently documented by Ed Kilgore. And let’s not forget Ben Carson’s recent foray into what Rabbi David Wolpe called the “inept,” “inaccurate,” and “indecent” use of the Holocaust to “score political points,” when Carson suggested that Jews in Nazi Germany could have prevented the Holocaust had they been armed with guns.

While abuse of Nazi and Holocaust analogies is not limited to one political party, these two most recent and most widely reviled instances were uttered by Republicans running for president who claim that their Christian faith deeply informs their politics and values.

Now the Syrian refugee crisis is creating a new set of Holocaust analogies—or, rather, criticism of perceived analogies gone awry. Washington Examiner columnist Philip Klein complains that the “left” is “suddenly comfortable” with Holocaust analogies, as supporters of resettling Syrian refugees in the United States warn that we should not turn away people fleeing war, terrorism, and persecution, just as the U.S. turned away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

The “left” consists, apparently, of Jewish groups that have stepped up to protect U.S. refugee resettlement programs from being gutted by xenophobic frenzy. A letter to members of Congress signed by a dozen Jewish groups, including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization founded in the late 19th century to save Jews fleeing pogroms, “implore[s]” members of Congress “not to make the same mistake” as the U.S. did in 1939, turning away the S.S. St. Louis and “sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe, where many died in concentration camps.” That incident, the letter continues, “was a stain on the history of our country — a tragic decision made in a political climate of deep fear, suspicion, and antisemitism.” The Orthodox Union, in its own statement, notes, “The Jewish community has an important perspective on this debate. Just a few decades ago, refugees from the terror and violence in Hitler’s Europe sought refuge in the United States and were turned away due to suspicions about their nationality.”

These are not efforts to compare a current policy to the Holocaust or Nazism; they are a call to compare our current behavior, rhetoric, and policymaking to our own history. They are a call to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, as a country, whether we are going to help people fleeing barbarity, or turn them away out of irrational fear of fifth columns.

Adding more toxins to these discussions, Donald Trump suggested in an interview that he might be in favor of measures like registering American Muslims in a database or “giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion.” Yahoo News’ Hunter Walker reports:

[Trump] also has concerns about the larger Muslim community here in the U.S., he said.

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

Of course it’s tempting to make a Nazi analogy here, but don’t. Trump isn’t Hitler—even though he’s very, very scary—but like other politicians and lawmakers who are fomenting fear of terrorists slipping through our rigorous refugee resettlement program, or praising Japanese internment camps, his behavior recalls ugly periods in our own history. Again, this is a look-in-the-mirror moment, not one for Holocaust analogies.